Heritage Living Center

Taylor Gordon: White Sulphur Springs–Harlem Renaissance Connection


Born in 1893 in White Sulphur Springs, Emmanuel Taylor Gordon is undoubtedly the most famous Montanan to become part of the Harlem Renaissance (1910-1930). Though he remained largely unknown for decades, several different scholars have lately written about his important contributions to African-American culture and American music.

Michael Johnson’s Taylor Gordon and the Harlem Renaissance (2019) is a good example.

Gordon grew up in White Sulphur, but left at 17 to seek his fortune in New York City. A talented singer, Gordon performed on the vaudeville circuit with great success, and then hooked up with J. Rosamund Johnson in 1919, to launch a singing career that took him around the world on the international stage. He was trained in the classical tradition; however, Gordon adapted his style to suit the repertoire compiled by Johnson, The Book of American Negro Spirituals, containing songs he and Johnson performed frequently.

Critics raved about Gordon’s treatment of the old spirituals, believing that he brought a seriousness to his interpretations that made them more authentic.

Though his singing career began to fade in the late 1920s, Gordon went on to become one of Montana’s important writers. He penned an excellent memoir that remains in print, Born to Be (1929), which recounts his childhood and youth in White Sulphur. The book chronicles his career as a performer, much of that time having been spent in Harlem during the height of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most important literary eras in American history.

Much of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had roots in the Harlem Renaissance.

Born to Be showcases Gordon at the peak of his powers, a born storyteller who catalogues with delight the characters and personages he encountered in his travels, as well as key players in the Harlem Renaissance like Carl Van Vechten. He describes in vivid detail the famous Harlem Drag Balls, attended by “men of all nations, white and black.”

Gordon later wrote a shorter work about Charles Henry Sherman, who was responsible for the well-known architectural landmark in White Sulphur Springs, called “the Castle.” Published in 1967, The Man Who Built the Stone Castle is Gordon’s last homage to the community he grew up in and returned to in 1959.

Having grown up in one of the only black families in Meagher County, Mont., Gordon brought a different perspective to race relations in 1920s New York. After a career that took him to stages all over the world, Gordon tended to be philosophical about race in general, disgusted by the racism of the deep south, but always optimistic about progress.

His career among writers and musicians and artists had exposed him to all manner of peoples, instilling in him a deep appreciation for everyone he met.

He rubbed elbows with millionaires and hobos, people of every race and nationality, and celebrated them all with warmth and affection in Born to Be.

Taylor Gordon returned to Montana to spend the last decade of his life in the town he had grown up in, noting with gratitude, “What a lucky bird I am to have been laid on top of the Rocky Mountains, hatched out by the Broiling Sun, a suckling of Honey Bluebacks and educated by the Grizzly Bear, with all the beauty and fresh air Nature can provide for her children.” MSN

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